Exodus 12: 1-14
Let us Keep the Feast
Everyone loves a two for one sale. That is what we have enjoyed these past few weeks. For the Old Testament lessons have provided both a sermon text and Bible refresher course. It is no less the case this week. The first lesson for this Lord’s Day relates an event that is foundational. Our use of the word “foundational” is intentional here. By it we are qualifying an event that “founds” or “establishes” something or someone. We refer in this case to the people of God. To be sure, this people already existed in promise in Abraham. But in this event they are established as God’s very own people.
Maybe an illustration will be helpful here. When I was young, I showed up at the baseball diamonds in the hope of playing sandlot baseball. I existed as a ballplayer, but only in promise. I had to wait for the captain of the team to pick me to be on his team. Before he did, I was one thing, but after he chose me, I became someone different. I was an active member of his team.
Before the event portrayed in our lesson, the slaves in Egypt were one thing. After the event, they were something different. They are God’s own people, in virtue of God’s decisive intervention on their behalf.
So what exactly is this event, this thing that God did, in which God changed their status from slave to God’s own people? How is it commemorated? And how does it relate to us today? More specifically, how does it relate to what we are about to do later in our service?
Last time we learned about Moses and the burning bush. God appeared to him there and sent him to pharaoh with the demand: “let my people go!” For the pharaoh had subjected them to hard labor, and made them to be his slaves. At first Moses was doubtful and hesitant. But God persuaded him, even recruiting his brother Aaron to be his helper.
The two approached Pharaoh with God’s demand. But each time Pharaoh refused. God judged Pharaoh and the Egyptians for theses refusals by sending plagues upon the land. There are nine, which devastated the countryside, and ruined the economy. No doubt you will probably recall many of them. They include the blood, frogs, lice, flies, the pestilence that affected the cattle, the boils, the hail, the locusts, and the darkness. You can read about them in Exodus 7-12. But Pharaoh’s heart was hard; he stubbornly refused to let the people go.
The tenth plague, however, was different. At night the angel of the Lord passed through the Egyptians and struck down all the firstborn in Egypt, both human beings and animals. Later we read that Pharaoh and all his officials and all the people of Egypt woke up during the night, and loud wailing was heard throughout the land of Egypt. There was not a single house where someone had not died (Ex. 12:30).
But this did not happen for the Israelites. God instructed Moses to help the people prepare for this event. Each household in Israel was to choose a year-old male lamb, without blemish or defect, and slaughter it. With some of the blood, they were to smear the sides and tops of the doors of their houses. “When the Lord sees the blood, he will “pass over” you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” Thus, what was to become a “passing through” for the Egyptians was to become a passing over for the Israelites.
This event was the tipping point. If the narrative is styled as a great contest between Pharaoh and the God of Israel, Pharaoh has to concede defeat. He has to capitulate to God’s demand: “let my people go.” He drove the people from the land. The Egyptians were so glad to see them go that they gave them whatever they asked for—articles of gold and silver and clothing, and so they plundered the Egyptians.
This is not the end of the story. The exodus is not complete. There is one more ordeal that the Israelites must survive to be freed once and for all from their Egyptian oppressors. But about that we will hear next week. Suffice it to say for now, that God is henceforth known to them as the God who delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians, out of the house of bondage.
But first we have to say more about this lesson. Note that this event is not related directly. Rather, it is related in the context of a ritual. Reverend Stan Mast of LaGrave Avenue Church in Grand Rapids, observes that God ordains the Feast of the Passover before the Passover event actually happens.
Since it is about a ritual, it hardly surprising to find very detailed instructions about how the feast is to be kept. It begins with the date on which the Israelites are to celebrate it. The new year began in the month when God delivered his people from bondage in Egypt. To remind them that their new life began when God passed over them as he passed through Egypt, God gave them this Passover celebration in the first month of their new calendar.
Then there is the lamb. We have already mentioned that the lamb was to be a male, a year old, without blemish or defect. The families were to give special care to the lambs for fourteen days before the day appointed for their slaughter.
Note also that each of the foods eaten in the festive meal have special meaning. The unleavened bread, since it is essentially bread to which time is denied for the dough to be leavened, symbolizes haste. For the people had to hurry to escape the Egyptians. That is why had to eat it with their shoes on their feet, their cloak tucked into their belt, and their staff in their hand. The bitter herbs symbolize the slaves’ work with bricks and tears that they shed because of the cruel treatment they suffered at the hands of their Egyptian oppressors.
The Israelites were to keep this feast for generations to come, so that the Israelites would never forget their liberating God.
This is a distinctively Jewish feast, and it remains essential to Jewish life and spirituality to this day. How many of you have ever witnessed a Jewish Passover seder?
But Passover has something to say to us as Christians. There are striking parallels between Passover and the Lord’s Supper, which we are about to celebrate this morning. Let us note a few.
First, consider the time. The new year began in the month when God delivered the people from their bondage in Egypt, as we have already mentioned. It’s as if God is saying: “remember your life began when I saved you from bondage. I am the source of your life.” Christians meet to worship on the first day of the week. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the month. Are we not thereby acknowledging the salvation of Jesus Christ as the source of our lives? Our lives too are grounded and established in God and what God has done for us.
Next consider the lamb, pure, without blemish or defect. The New Testament calls Jesus the lamb of God without spot or blemish whose precious blood redeems us from an empty way of life. In the words of Reverend Mast, his blood marks us, sets us free, and cleanses us from all sins.
It is therefore no coincidence that Jesus desired to have the Last Supper with his disciples on the occasion of Passover. “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” Jesus tells the disciples in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus does indeed eat the Passover with his disciples, but it is no ordinary Passover. He changes and thereby completes its meaning. He is the unblemished lamb that is slain for us on the cross. It is his blood that is smeared on its beams. Because of that blood, God passes over the new Israel when he passes through the world to judge the gods who have enslaved so many.
Let us make two observation before concluding this brief meditation. Our lives go in multiple directions. We travel to different places. We meet various and diverse peoples. We become exposed to new ways of thinking about the world. To be sure, this is normal. In fact, without it we don’t evolve into mature adults. Without it, we don’t realize our full potential. On the other hand, if we range too widely, if we become exposed to too much that is harmful to us, if we accumulate too much baggage, then identity becomes a problem. We lose a sense of who we are, or who we should be. Is that not a problem today among so many deracinated, lonely individuals, severed from the ties that in the past used to bind persons together in marriages, families, churches and neighborhoods? That is why God commanded the Israelites to make Passover an ordinance, to make it annual feast. Celebrating Passover together reminds people of who they are and of to whom they belong. That is why Jesus commanded his followers to “do this in memory of him,” by which he meant the Lord’s Supper. The verb used there means “to keep on doing it.” When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, we are reminded of who we are and to whom we belong.
Second, we have to have a firm sense of what or who grounds and establishes our lives. For many people today, it may be a retirement portfolio, property, marriage and family, a successful profession, achievements, fame and recognition, or even a grievance against someone or even the whole world. But for God’s people, it is God and what God has done for us that grounds and establishes our lives. Every time we gather around the table to celebrate the Lord’s Supper we affirm and proclaim this.
Have we appreciated that our Passover grounds and establishes our lives? Or to be more precise, that the events that it commemorates ground and establish our lives? For the Christian Passover commemorates the deliverance of all persons from the bondage to sin and death through the sacrifice of Christ.
Christ our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed. Let us therefore keep the feast! Amen.